- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- None noted
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Canberra I, HMAS Voyager I, HMAS Vendetta I, HMAS Stuart I, HMAS Australia II
- September 1983 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Showing the Flag Around Australia
By Civilian Observer
This account of HMAS Canberra’s 1935 cruise was printed in the Sun & Guardian dated 8 December, 1935. The cruise was made in company with HMS Sussex which was on loan to the RAN while Australia was operating with the Mediterranean Fleet.
CRUISING WITH THE NAVY is not all beer and skittles, or free rum and tobacco either. When the Naval Board drafts out a cruise programme it is no sightseeing tour, but a definite schedule of evolutions, training and manoeuvres, while the various places to be visited are carefully selected with the aim of ‘showing the flag’ to Australia and her dependencies.
When I, with 30 other members of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve, embarked during the spring cruise, I may have had visions of pleasure trips in the style of the shipping companies’ advertisements, but if so, I was sadly disillusioned.
Until one has lived and worked with the Fleet for three months it is difficult for the average citizen to realise what the Navy does during its visits to ‘furrin parts’ and to appreciate fully the degree of perfection to which efficiency is carried.
A seaman’s day starts at 5.30 a.m. After lashing up his hammock, which is slung from special bars over the mess table, he stows it away in the special bins provided to conserve space. A hammock lashed in the service manner will support a man in the water for 24 hours, and may be utilised as a lifebelt. At 6 a.m. scrubbing the decks begins, a job which is as old as the Navy itself. It continues until 7.30.
After breakfast the seaman climbs into ‘the rig of the day’, the rig depending upon the weather. At 9 a.m. the parade and inspection known as ‘divisions’ takes place. The ship is inspected to ensure that cleanliness and tidiness are being maintained, the personnel of the ship checked, and the crew then marched to the quarterdeck for morning prayers.
After ‘divisions’, instruction in seamanship, gunnery and torpedo drills is given and thousands of odd jobs are done. Combating the ravages of the elements is one job that is never finished, as the salt air and spray play havoc with metal surfaces. All aluminium, steel and brass must be continually burnished to prevent its destruction by rust or verdigris. A three-course meal is served at midday and work begins again at 1.15 p.m. – more drills, educational, instructional and the countless duties of the unspecialised ratings.
At 4 p.m., or 1600 in navy time, the final inspection, or quarters, is piped and the ship’s company checked again. After quarters the seaman is free to mend, wash and iron clothing, read and study or use the fencing, boxing and wrestling gear under the supervision of the gymnastic instructor.
One fine day we sailed up the harbor and headed north. Only the gods could have foretold that we were to return from the south.
Sailing in company with the flagship was HMS Sussex, the English cruiser from the Mediterranean Squadron, on loan to Australia in exchange for HMAS Australia, which conveyed the Duke of Gloucester on the latter portion of his tour last year. The Stuart, Voyager and Vendetta were also with us.
Sometimes the Fleet would be strung out in line, in the manner so dear to the hearts of movie picture directors. At other times the destroyers would be far out on the horizon practising reconnaissance, scouting and spotting, as they are correctly known as ‘the eyes of the fleet’.
From Brisbane, after a pleasant stay of about 12 days, the Fleet began to split up and carry out individual programmes. The destroyers called at various ports in Queensland, one, the Stuart, going to Darwin, while the Sussex left us in the Barrier Reef for Tulagi, the little capital of the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, the only colony in the world jointly governed by France and Great Britain, and New Caledonia.
It was announced that the Fleet would rendezvous in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where the annual regatta and Admiral’s inspection would take place. These two events necessitate months of hard training and preparation, one being for the purpose of cultivating the Fleet’s physical fitness and sporting spirit, the other being a display of the general efficiency of, and co-operation between, all units of the crew. Even at this time, two months before the events, racing crews were practising in their heavy seagoing craft. ‘Wet paint’ signs, too, were appearing in vast numbers as the ship was being painted from truck to keelson.
In the Barrier Reef groups we were amazed at the number, size and shape of the islands. Big islands, little ‘uns, isles round and flat or long and mountainous, some barren and desolate, others dazzling with their profuse growth of luxurious tropical vegetation. Surrounding many of them were reefs of exquisite but treacherous coral. They were in delicate shades of pink, green and mauve in a profusion of fragile looking tracery, but even a 10,000-ton cruiser dare not move at night because of them.
From the summit of a hill on Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef seemed a thin white line stretching as far as the eye could see. It presented an awe inspiring sight and a monument to the coral organism which built it. Steaming out through the historical Cook’s Passage we were surprised to see that the reef was hundreds of yards wide and the surface composed of sand, rocks, and broken coral – islands in the making. As we travelled north we had called at various islands, and in the paper printed on board, had read the graphic tales of their early inhabitants. Palm Island and its mission station, Low Island so aptly named, and Dunk Island, the home of the late ‘Beachcomber’ Banfield.
I was particularly intrigued with the sleek latalsois, or canoes, which clustered round the ship from the time of her arrival at Port Moresby until her departure. These canoes are manned by whole families, shrivelled crones, dusky belles in swishing ramiis, or grass skirts, and swarms of laughing, naked children, while the steersmen were invariably well developed men, perfectly dressed in two inches of loin cloth and woven armbands.
War was declared while we were in Port Moresby, and word was received during the screening of a talkie on deck. For a few seconds after the quartermaster had announced ‘Hostilities have commenced between Italy and Abyssinia,’ there was dead silence. Then pandemonium broke loose. Cheering, stamping, whistling, laughing and clapping continued until cries of ‘Hang the war! On with the show!’ predominated. To the deuce with il Duce when a snappy picture is being shown!
Still our cruise was unfortunately curtailed, as the Fleet’s presence in a strategic position at Darwin was of greater importance than any influence the ships would have upon the inhabitants of Samarai or Rabaul.
Leaving Port Moresby we met the Sussex in the Gulf of Papua. She had come over from Tulagi and accompanied us to Darwin, where the Stuart was waiting. The Official Secrets Act came into being here, and from henceforth our whereabouts would be unknown to the general public. It came as a great surprise when after a few days’ stay the Sussex left, ‘destination unknown’. The day before she sailed there was a great reunion at the Garrison Artillery Barracks in Darwin. Members of the English and Australian Navies, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Army were united in a common bond – beer on Sunday. Darwin is a dry, dusty town and since Vestey’s meatworks have closed down, many of the galvanised iron shops are vacant, though there are several cool, prosperous emporiums transacting business.
Rumors regarding our destination were many and varied, and the tale goes that the Admiral asked his steward where we were going next, and was correctly told. After receiving stores brought around from Brisbane by passenger boat and oil fuel from the huge depot ashore, the Canberra and Stuart proceeded to Shark Bay, WA, to wait for and refuel the two destroyers Voyager and Vendetta, when the quartet moved on to Fremantle.
After a short stay here we then left on our way home across the Bight to refit in Cockatoo Dock. Naturally we were disappointed to miss the Cup in Melbourne, but it was unavoidable in the circumstances. The fact that we were heading for Sydney and home was of greater importance, and certainly gave much more pleasure to those who were only reserves and not accustomed to being absent from their homes as were the permanent ratings in the Navy.